Wednesday 22 August 2018

Grand rarity: Halevy's La reine de Chypre revealed by Palazzeto Bru Zane

Fromental Halevy: La reine de Chypre - Palazzetto Bru Zane
Fromental Halevy La reine de Chypre; Veronique Gens, Cyrille Dubois, Eric Huchet, Etienne Dupois, Christophoros Stamboglis, Orchestre de chambre de Paris, Herve Niqut; Palazzo Bru Zane Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 June 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Stylishly elegant music allied to a rather unconvincing plot in Halevy's follow up to his success in La Juive in this rare revival from Palazzetto Bur Zane

If Fromental Halevy's La Juive is relatively rare, then his second grand opera La reine de Chypre is rarer still. This new recording from Palazzetto Bru Zane is based on the first performances of the opera for 140 years. Herve Niquet conducts the Flemish Radio Choir and Orchestre de chambre de Paris with Veronique Gens, Cyrille Dubois, Etienne Dupuis, Eric Huchet and Christophoros Stamboglis.

Of the French grand operas from the first half of the 19th century (roughly 1830s to 1850s), many of the works which have kept a toe-hold on the repertoire (Rossini's Guillaume Tell, Halevy's La Juive, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots and Le prophete) seem to combine the necessary love affair (usually ill-fated) with a larger-scale subject which gives the opera depth. A prime example is Meyerbeer's Le prophete, where despite Jean's relationship with Berthe, it is his relations with the Anabaptists and with his mother, Fides, where the interest in the opera really lies.

Similarly, in Fromental Halevy's first grand opera, La Juive, part of the focus is on the relationship between Eleazar and his daughter Rachel, and on the impossibility of her relationship (as she is a Jew) with a Christian man. For his second grand opera Halevy turned to a libretto by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges based around an invented story about Caterina Cornaro, Queen of Cyprus (a subject also treated in Donizetti's opera based on St Georges' libretto). The libretto is efficient, Venetians Caterina and Gerard are in love but the evil Mocenigo (representative of the Venetian Council of Ten) forces Caterina to reject Gerard so she can become Queen of Cyprus. Thereafter their lives are intertwined.

The plot relies on us to believe in and respond to the 'terreur' of the Republic of Venice, something which appealed to the audience at the Paris opera in the 1840s when La reine de Chypre premiered. But which seems a less compelling backdrop for a plot nowadays.

La reine de Chypre is unusual, though, in a number of ways. For a start, it has only one leading female role, the title role. Sung originally by Rosine Stoltz, the mezzo-soprano reigning diva of the Paris Opera. It was usual for such grand opera to have two female roles, a high colorature and a lower soprano/mezzo-soprano (the type of role originally specialised in by Cornelie Falcon), but Rosine Stoltz was so disputatious that operas written for her tended to have only one major female role. Even the opening of the opera is unusual, no chorus to set the scene, just the heroine in recitative echoed by the tenor's couplets off stage.

Musically it is beautifully constructed, so there is much to enjoy, though the plot mechanics are rather clunky, and having kept Caterina and Gerard apart for the whole opera and then her husband dying, the piece ends not with a glorious reconciliation or poignant tragedy but with a hymn to the Cypriot victory over Venice. It is a curiously unsatisfactory ending, and you wish that composer and librettist had been more daring.

The opera is relatively compact, just a little more than 2 hours 30 minutes of music. There is no ballet (as the excellent notes make clear, ballets were not quite as imperative as it might have seemed). The recording, made live, is based on a new edition which has attempted to rationalise the various and differing sources for the opera (which had not been performed for 140 years).

For me the best music in the opera are there duets for Caterina (Veronique Gens) and Gerard (Cyrille Dubois), where Gens and Dubois bring a brilliant combination of passion and elegance to the music. Both singers seem admirably suited to their roles, and both sing with a style which is essential to recreating the forgotten operas of this era. Gens makes Caterina a very human character, moving from elegant love to steely resolve in the face of adversity in the final acts. I admired Dubois in the recent Bizet Les Pêcheurs de Perles [see my review] and he is equally impressive here. The role is high-lying and Dubois can slip elegant high notes into a supple line, but is also able to bring steely resolve to the more dramatic elements.

As the villain of the piece, Mocenigo is woefully underdeveloped, we have to take much for granted. Eric Huchet sings him with great elegance, creating a very suave character. Caterina's husband, Jacques de Lusignan King of Cyprus is a bit of an unbelievable goody-two-shoes, but Etienne Dupuis sings him stylishly and there is much to enjoy, particularly in his duet with Cyrille Dubois' Gerard. There is firm support from Christophoros Stamboglis as Caterina's father Andrea, Artavazd Sargasyan as Strozzi and Tomislav Lavoie in a couple of small role.

Herve Niquet conducts with Flemish Radio Choir and the Orchestre de chamber de Paris, and all concerned achieve an engaging elegance of style. The set comes with the usual Palazzetto Bru Zane documentation with four essays, synopsis and libretto (all in English and French) plus illustrations.

There is much enjoyable music here, and I found much of the opera entrancing. It is perhaps ideal on disc as you do not have to worry about the failings of the drama. Frankly, I am not sure that this would survive on the modern stage, though I may well be wrong, but I am certainly glad that Palazzo Bru Zane has given us the chance to hear and re-visit this neglected opera.

Fromental Halevy (1799-1862) - La reine de Chypre
Catarina Cornaro (Queen of Cyprus) - Veronique Gens
Gerard de Coucy - Cyrille Dubois
Jacques de Lusignan (King of Cyprus) - Etienne Dubois
Mocenigo - Eric Huchet
Andrea Cornaro - Christophoros Stamboglis
Strozzi - Artavazd Sargasyan
Tomislav Lavoie
Flemish Radio Choir
Orchestra de chambre de Paris
Herve Niquet (conductor)
Recorded at the Theatre des Champs-Elysee, Pars 5-7 July 2017
Palazzetto Bru Zane
Available from Amazon.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • The Grand Manner - Aprile Millo's London debut recital at the Cadogan Hall (★★★½) - concert review
  • Songs of Farewell - BBC Singers and Sakari Oramo at the Proms (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Bayreuth’s Tristan und Isolde was grand and convincing in every conceivable way harbouring a sting in its tail (★★★★★)  - concert review
  • Keeping her secrets: Tom Randle's Love Me To Death explores the mysterious Ruth Ellis (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • The Opera That Goes Wrong: Tête à Tête's Toscatastrophe!  - Opera review
  • Bayreuth’s Parsifal provided a sensitive portrayal of humanity overcoming adversity (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • As important as ever: Opera Rara's mission to rediscover, record and perform rare opera  - interview
  • Hubert Parry - the complete string quartets (★★★)  - CD review
  • Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (★★★)  - Opera review
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
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